J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Saturday, August 18, 2007

Thomas Paine: gone but not forgotten

Around Independence Day, Counterpunch ran Charles Modiano’s article titled “History’s Hit Job on Thomas Paine”, which he also reprinted on his blog, Kill Bigotry! Modiano starts his paean to Paine this way:

Unlike George Washington, there is no holiday in his honor. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, there is no memorial in the Washington mall. And unlike many other of his dead revolutionary peers, you won’t find his picture in your wallet no matter how big a spender you are.
Of course, all the individual monuments in Washington and most of the portraits on coins and bills honor U.S. Presidents, not just Revolutionary activists. And only the most influential Presidents are so treated. Where, for example, is our white stone monument to James Madison, the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution? What bill does he appear on? (The defunct $5,000 bill, in fact.) We could ask the same about John Adams and his cousin Samuel, and they don’t even have bills.

Modiano also asserts:
Had Paine not escaped near execution in a Luxemburg jail he was committed to in 1793, he may have very well gone on to become our country’s most iconic founder.
Certainly Paine’s memory in American culture would have been enhanced if he’d become a political martyr and never gotten to use his prison time to finish writing The Age of Reason; many Americans’ notion of religious freedom wasn’t broad enough to include deism as a possibility. But the very fact that Paine was in France in 1793 offers a better explanation of why Americans don’t treat him as a hero of the highest order.

Paine, more than any of his peers in the American Revolutionary movement, was a citizen of the western world. He was born in England, coming to Pennsylvania with a recommendation from Benjamin Franklin in his pocket only in 1774. He then wrote Common Sense and The Crisis—and some bitter criticism of slave-owning Patriots like Washington. He served as secretary for the Continental Congress’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, becoming the source of some sensational leaks before he was dismissed.

After the war Paine didn’t stay in the new republic, but returned to Britain to promote his idea for a bridge built of iron. While there, he published several proposals for reforming the British government, which the British government didn’t appreciate. Then Paine went to Revolutionary France, even serving in its legislature. After the democratic reform there dissolved into dictatorship under Robespierre and then Napoleon, he returned to the U.S. of A.

Thus, Paine was usually an outsider. He was a natural activist, not a natural government official. He produced proposals for reform and brilliant calls for change and commitment to the cause, but he didn’t have the political skills to build a government. Paine was one part of the American Revolution, yet bigger than it as well. So the idea that he “may have very well gone on to become our country’s most iconic founder”—more iconic than Washington or Franklin—is a leap far longer than any iron bridge.

Modiano is correct that Paine’s legacy makes a lot of conservatives nervous—but not libertarian conservatives. That same legacy also makes a lot of progressives proud, and as a result there’s been no shortage of Paine literature over the years: Amazon lists 360 titles on him and his ideas. (Comparable count on Samuel Adams: 104.) If history has tried to carry out a “hit job” on Thomas Paine, it’s failed spectacularly.


Larry Cebula said...

Millard Filmore doesn't get his due. I small a conspiracy!

J. L. Bell said...

A smell conspiracy, at most.

But what other one-term U.S. President has a daily comic strip named after him?